Two-way Grit

The Headmaster of Gresham’s School, Douglas Robb, has hit the headlines with his criticism of a potential employee who had the temerity to ask a question along the lines of, “Why should I work for your school?” He criticised the sense of entitlement that he perceived in the interviewee’s attitude, and went on to criticise the ‘snowflake’ generation for its lack of grit.

I was initially tempted to agree with his views, and I am as certain as one can be that they were well-meant. I have certainly come across many people in my time who exhibited the outlook that he criticises.

But on second thoughts, it becomes clear that Mr. Robb may be suffering from a certain restriction of vision. I have no particular insight into the conditions of employment at Gresham’s, but I would suspect that they are demanding but fair – in which case, the comments are probably justified. One might have thought that the opportunity to work in a prestigious school would be sufficient additional enticement for a young professional.

But the situation is very different in the wider workplace. Mr. Robb suggests that young people should not flinch from taking first jobs in menial work, and this is probably equally fair enough; I did the same, working for a year as an ancillary in a large psycho-geriatric hospital. It put quite a lot of things into perspective for a young, recent graduate. But for those, increasingly including the highly educated, for whom such employment may be rather more than a temporary prospect, I suggest the matter is rather different: it seems perfectly reasonable to me for them to question the value of what they are contemplating.

The same is not completely unreasonable of teachers. In the current climate, where the demands of the job are as extreme as they are, and the rewards have barely shifted in a decade, then I think anyone entering the profession and meeting a potential employer is entitled to ask what the other half of the ‘deal’ is. I worked for a school that majored on how much its staff could do for it – yet it was, for most of the time remarkably reticent in terms of what it felt its obligations to its staff were in return. Those who have been following my recent experiences will appreciate the poignancy of that – and no, the pay-cheque is not sufficient reward for a high-functioning professional of whom great demands will be made.

When schools, as much as any other influence spend so much time encouraging young people to aim high, think critically and expect a lot, it is rather ‘rich’ for them suddenly to expect those same people, when they return as would-be teachers, to accept ‘put up, shut up and be grateful for what you get’ as an adequate response. One wonders whether senior leaders practise the same attitude when it comes to their own prospects.

The demands on teachers are great, and it seems entirely reasonable for a self-respecting young person to enquire what the other half of the deal is. For too long, educational culture has regarded it as a privilege to work as a teacher, to wear the hair shirt and sacrifice one’s life for the ‘calling’. But there are limits – and they are very close to being reached, as the recruitment and retention crisis shows. Particularly when those at the top are visibly taking an ever larger slice of the cake for themselves, and grass-roots level employment seems in contrast ever more insecure, it seems only a matter of prudence and self-respect to safeguard one’s own position on entering a contract. I would hope that Mr. Robb offers an attractive package to his staff – but there are plenty of school leaders out there who do not, and who seem to consider the way they treat their staff to be no more than an afterthought. It would be no bad thing if they were given more cause for reflection on this, and perhaps themselves showed more ‘grit’ when it came to looking after their staff, especially during difficult times.

A great deal in the exchange described by Mr. Robb depended on the subtleties of inflection and attitude, which the rest of us cannot know – but I increasingly wonder if his real objection is more to the apparent breach of the deference which schools – and in particular private ones – seem to expect from their staff almost as much as from their pupils. In which case, the problem is his: in an equal society, it is not reasonable to expect one’s employees to be any more beholden to their employer than the opposite. It is no more a teacher’s privilege to work for a school than it is for the school to have the teacher work for it.

Saliently, it was once observed, “If hard work is all it is cracked up to be, those at the top would have kept it all for themselves”. If people realise that they need to tread carefully, that is no bad thing.


Notes from beyond 3 – Wish you were here?

Mixed feelings at a time when I am aware the school holidays are coming to a close; I will try not to gloat when I remind you that mine continue ad infinitum – albeit with the remnants of a very uncomfortable head to deal with… I am slightly apprehensive about the coming watershed, when all my former colleagues return to work, and I don’t. There is also the small matter of a financial brick wall lurking in the latter part of next spring…

When I was a child, the summer holidays seemed to go on forever; this year it is particularly noticeable that it was only five minutes ago that they were beginning… So having done my gloating, I will observe that in a sense I have had no holiday at all. While others were abroad, I am not yet in a position to follow suit, even though we’ve had a few nice days out locally. What’s more, my entire personal calendar, by which the pulse of life’s routine was measured ever since I was three, has been abolished – including the holiday feeling. It’s strangely disorientating.

On the increasing number of better days, I’ve been exploring my options. The good news is, it looks very much as though my second book (and first on teaching) has found a willing publisher – though I’m not counting my chickens. More details in due course, if they become warranted. Book number three, on something entirely different, is also underway.

I have also been dabbling in local politics, again something for which I didn’t have time ‘before’. People keep telling me how many transferrable skills teachers have, though I must admit I was sceptical. But it seems that this is actually a case of unconscious competence: without divulging too much, those skills do seem to have come to the fore. I am beginning to think that they may not even be fully visible to teachers themselves, as they are not quite the ‘usual suspects’:

  1. The ability to be self-sufficient. Having seen the extent to which many people rely on teams and committees to move forward – and how sluggish this can be – one of the teacher’s strengths comes from their autonomous ability to get things done. From necessity, teachers need not to rely overly on others – they don’t have secretaries and sub-committees and minions to delegate to: they just do stuff. That is a great strength.
  2. Communication. I managed to cause a long-running debate on the local community’s Facebook page; it ran for several days. I did what any teacher does naturally, and tried to balance the discussion, ask the dissenters to elaborate and explain what they would prefer, etc. etc. As a result, several unexpected plaudits have come my way. I received similar when I worked as public-facing volunteer on a steam railway some years ago – just for doing what came naturally as a teacher. It clearly is a rarer – and more appreciated – skill than I thought.

A while ago my former school went through a tough patch; I gently fished my tutor group for their thoughts. One said, “It’s hardly surprising we’re all fed up when half the teachers seem as though they don’t want to be here either!” They were right, and it was particularly saddening in a school that used to be a relatively happy and motivated place; I’ll leave you to figure out what had changed.

But it’s clear that teachers’ soft skills have more impact than perhaps they appreciate – so don’t forget to have a smile on your face and a song in your voice when you return in the coming weeks; I’ll have one there for you!!!

Death by Management

This is a cross-post from my new general-interest blog which can be found at

I’ve been dabbling on the fringes of local democracy. The small town where I live is noted for its outstanding heritage and excellent quality of life, but like many such places, it presently faces multiple challenges from various forms of development that are closing in. In the case of housing, the big builders frequently target such places because homes sell quickly there for a premium. But in the process, they very often ruin what was attractive in the first place.

Neighbourhood plans were a political initiative to give at least a semblance of local self-determination – it depends on how cynical you want to be. But my impression is that these activities are suffering from the same malaise that seems to afflict all of modern life – over-management.

I will hasten to say that I am sure those heading in this direction mean only well; it is just that for many people, professional life has become about little more than committee meetings. It seems that nothing in modern organisations can move without a pile of policy objectives, dozens of meetings and tome of paperwork.

There are some people who glory in all of this – and I have met my fair share of professional committee-sitters in my time. The Healthy Schools Initiative was one; I spent a fair amount of time in meetings with people who seemed far more concerned with ticking boxes, writing policies and acquiring accreditation logos than actually effecting real change. And for all that the logos were indeed acquired, very little of real use actually changed. Certainly nothing that justified all the expensive professional hours spent in those meetings.

If local democracy is to mean anything, be it in schools or entire communities, it is surely about giving people the ability to make a real impact on the places where they live and work. That should not require dozens of sub-committees and expensive consultants and analysts. And when I put some practical ideas forward, it seemed as though, being ‘projects’ – as opposed to policies – they have to go in the box marked ‘aspirational’, for attention only at some ill-defined moment in the far future.

The cynic in me says that death-by-management is a product of a society that struggles to create enough ‘real’ jobs for its people. Equally, I know that communal activities do need to be co-ordinated, money accounted for, and democracy observed. Good managers facilitate that. But on that last point, the triumph of the professional committee-member is not democratic, for it excludes a whole tranche of people who do not operate in that way.

Furthermore, such hidebound procedure strangles the ability of the doers to operate in their own, possibly rather esoteric ways; policy by definition does not cope easily with diversity. Bureaucracy and committee work is not known for its creativity and imagination, and history is littered with influential people who revolutionised their fields precisely by not following the rules.

Over-management kills stone dead the ability of such people actually to bring about real, on-the-ground improvements.


Notes from Beyond 1: The end of Time

I’m glad to report that something like normality is being restored here. The drug-induced fug of the last seven months is receding as my dose has been cut and the mind heals itself; there are days when I even enjoy living – something that has been grimly absent since last autumn.

I still feel shocked when I think about the speed of change in my circumstances: this time last year, I was teaching full-time, with no expectation that the next decade would be any different. But a routine has established itself, with which I am not unhappy, and which is perhaps revealing some of life’s greater truths.

I am able to get up when the body is ready, rather than when the alarm clock dictates, eat a breakfast that sets me up so that the hunger pangs of mid-morning don’t happen. I’ve never been a ‘morning person’, so the ability to start the day in a gradual way is a huge improvement.

I have received enough messages from people I value, including some from colleagues of many years ago, for the inevitable crash in self-esteem to start to ease a little. There are enough people complimentary of my work for me to start to be confident again that it was not All My Fault.

And there has been a leap in my ability to think clearly and creatively about my position on all sorts of issues. I am getting involved in local community activities and a number of my dormant interests have revived.

Do I miss School? Very little, actually. The company of my colleagues defintely, and the better type of relations with the pupils too. But most definitely not the humourless grind of targets, scrutiny and compliance that the job has become. I don’t miss the regular assault on my better judgement from people whom, I honestly felt, sometimes had less insight and fewer principles than I – nor the consequent sense of having to live my life to someone else’s agenda.

But perhaps most bizarre is the sense of fluidity to one’s time. Having lived my entire life to the drum-beat of the academic year, having known precisely where one was and how things were progressing by the hourly, weekly and termly pulse of that system, it is quite disorientating not to have that. I even almost failed to notice that it was recently Half Term. But equally, it is lovely to be able to appreciate the onset of summer, rather than wishing it away for holidays that only begin when it is half-passed. I generally consider myself fairly self-aware, but only now is it becoming clear just how institutionalised a life in teaching had made me.

I am concerned that as time progresses, I may have less and less worth adding to the education debate. But that may be no bad thing – from a greater distance, it begins to look increasingly like a talking-shop whose main effect is to over-complicate what is still a fairly simple process. Of course, when it’s your daily life, perspectives are different – but I still feel that education is being over-complicated, and for all the wrong reasons.

I’m very fortunate that there no immediate need to seek new employment, and much of the above experience may seem to have little relevance for those who still need to earn a crust. But if there is one thing it is this:

The rat-race that consumes teachers and gobbles up children ever younger, is not only unnecessary but also counter-productive. Education should be about life, not the reverse. The ridiculous amount of pressure being applied to all concerned both risks crowding out the very things needed to think and learn effectively – time. It is very noticeable how much easier it is to think creatively and productively without the pressures of The System bearing down and obliterating everything else.

The pedestal upon which ‘Learning’ is put by so many talking heads is not authentic. In their world, subjects are simply the means to exam passes and league-table positions. They are the passport to a world of often-subservient, deskilled employment from which too often the main beneficiaries are the bosses. And they are the opening for those same people to throw you on the scrap-heap when they have had enough of you. Not a noble, higher aim in sight.

It is so much easier to bloom personally and intellectually when life is not one continuous, needless race against time.


Another one bites the dust

So that’s it. I am told that today is officially my last day of paid employment as a teacher, at least for the time being. Although the paperwork has not come through yet, I must mark the day in some way. I was 23, not long out of university when I joined the school; now I’m just a few years off retirement. Sixty percent of my life spent with teaching as (time-wise at least) the dominant waking activity. I now join the growing ranks of EX-teachers: how many more can the system afford?

Many people comment about how stressful it must be working with kids. They assume that is what did for my health. It wasn’t; it was the continual fight with The System to keep the job sensible. We are paid to deal with immature people, and they are mostly manageable – but not so an immature education System. In the end it was the ‘friendly’ fire that did for me, from a system that would apparently rather have no teachers at all, than ones that know their own minds and who adhere to their own sincere and justifiable principles.

I tried to interpret Teaching in a liberal, humane sense. I have no issue whatsoever with intellectual or personal rigour – but I cannot accept that that means nothing more than a Sisyphean chasing of targets. I note a husband-and-wife couple who managed a very successful primary school have recently decided the same thing.

Education is ultimately about developing human beings, not robots, communities not corporations – and it requires a wide perspective on what it is to be human to do that. I believe I have that perspective and I developed my skills to match; in its wisdom, the system has decided it can live without them.

There is not much more to be said. I did my best.

I have no plans to close this blog for the time being; it is possible that in due course it will morph into something wider – but my observations will inevitably be coloured by my new remove from daily life in the classroom. It seems like an appropriate point to thank my growing number of ‘followers’ for their interest and supportive comments, especially over the past five months. Keep watching this space!


Declining – if not falling. Part 2.

I think it was the shadow education secretary Angela Rayner who, some days ago, said something like, “Selective education does not promote social mobility and therefore it has no part in the British education system.” (my emphasis).

It could not be clearer: the Labour Party sees education primarily as a form of overt social engineering. But the Conservatives are saying exactly the same thing, though they couch it in terms of individual opportunity, of course.

I’m not going to disagree with people trying to optimise their time on this planet – but as the years have passed and education policy has blown this way and that, I have had a growing sense that the whole thing is utterly, profoundly mistaken in its approach. It is at risk of becoming little more than a huge waste of effort. This blog, and my (still unpublished) book were in part an effort to reconcile this, both for my own professional sanity and partly because I genuinely believe that something fundamental needs to shift in the tectonic plates of the British political/social/education systems.

Education works – of that there is little doubt. It permits people to improve their diet and health, to form productive relationships, to reduce their family size, to follow complex procedures, to make more rational decisions and to improve their material conditions. Largely forgotten to policy-makers, it also opens the wonders of human culture and knowledge, and it may encourage people to act more responsibly towards the planet. It can tip the balance of life from suffering to joy. But it is not a panacea.

It does not do those things because of bits of paper with certain letters on them – nor because of green pens or triple-marking. Its success is not measured by league table positions, nor by the size of managers’ salaries. I don’t think it really even does those things because of teachers’ choice of methods. And it certainly does not do it because lessons danced to any particular drum-beat of “progress” in a set amount of time. All of these things are nothing more than the immature preoccupations of an introspective and surprisingly insecure profession.

I don’t think it even really does it because of the specific things that children are taught. It is true that some people develop genuine interests or skills as a direct result of their schooling, but they are probably a minority. It is also true that important information can be passed on – though it’s debatable how much of it is ever retained, let alone acted upon given children’s inherent immaturity. It is pretty certainly not true that people’s attitudes change deeply because of soul-searching during PSHE lessons or the like; in my experience, moralising in schools – even when it contains practical information – often does little more than antagonise.

The problem is, education is nothing like as predictable as so many want it to be. For a start, its societal benefits are primarily trans-generational. There are plenty who benefit from it as expected – but there are also the widely-publicised cases of people who ‘did well’ only ever having been to the School of Hard Knocks.  I know several cases where access to the best education seems to have made little difference and has arguably not prevented those people from heading in the other direction down the socio-economic scale. More schooling does not automatically lead to better lives.

This is why it is so mistaken to require schools to be social engineers – the issues that really hinder life outcomes run at a deeper and less visible level, and often establish at an earlier age, than we can control. There is only so much that fire-fighting by teachers can achieve. My own educational progress was not mostly down to the quality of the schools or teachers, so much as my coming from a home that established appropriate values to begin with.

I don’t think I have experienced any great social mobility in my life – but my education has nonetheless helped me to access many fields that are a source of perpetual fascination and reward. It has also given me a perspective about to relate to wider society. I am about to be jobless – but education will provide the resilience to keep me interested in life in the interim. It was not achieved through targets – the nearest thing we had to those in the 1970s were firmly in the ‘demotivating’ camp; it was achieved purely and simply through awakening the intellect.

In some ways education’s success has been its own failure:  by encouraging those who can to capitalise on their skills – while politicians were busy removing the social restraint that used to accompany overt greed – we have facilitated the opening of the inequality gap that now troubles so many. And what of those left behind? Few of the social engineers have much at all to say about those who just don’t bother: it’s another expression of the ‘everyone a winner’ syndrome.

The causes of inequality in Britain run far deeper than anything that education alone can tackle. The current view starts from the questionable assumption that the present system does not already allow those who will to flourish. It is about class envy and replacing one elite with another. It assumes that those who fail do so for reasons beyond their control – which real-life examples repeatedly show to be only partly the case.

I’m not suggesting that undeserved privilege does not exist nor that it shouldn’t be tackled – but a better way would be to remove the concept of social hierarchy – whether defined by money or anything else – rather than simply equip a different group of people to profit at others’ expense. This might sound utopian – but my impression is that the relative classlessness of many continental countries is one of the reasons this issue does not trouble them as severely as it does us.

We may achieve isolated wins, but most of the desire to push people up the hierarchy is worthy but pointless hope. The failure of even many educators to appreciate that it is far more subtle and complex than that is the greatest educational  failure of all.

Teachers would be far better doing what they really can – awakening individual intellects – and then leaving them to make what hopefully-enlightened sense of the world they will. It is what I tried to do as a teacher; isn’t that enough?


For what? (part two)

zeller_hallenbad-radonbad-in-menzenschwand-3Teacher de-stressor (not available in the UK.)

It seems to me that in Britain, by comparison, there is a sense of disempowerment – that people have less real control over their lives, that there is less active engagement with living a good life. I contrast this with the very passive act of consumption that seems widely to dominate people’s attention.

I’ve never really been able to separate the extent to which that might be caused by the legacy of a hierarchical society, or because people have willingly devolved responsibility for their lives to the political or commercial sector. Either way, one might argue that one of the purposes of education is to equip people to resist the forces that diminish their autonomy.

If I am correct, this passivity is precisely what one might expect a lack of education to cause. Clearly the U.K. does not lack education – but perhaps it is failing to deliver in this critical respect. I can see no other reason why so many people are prepared to live insubstantial, pre-packaged, cloned lives at the expense of any sense of their own individuality. “Because I’m worth it” has been misappropriated from being an inward expression of personal substance and turned into the ultimate in lazy consumer indulgence. Ironically, the more out-sourcing of life goes on, the less what is left might be deemed to be ‘worth’ much at all.

There will always be differences in society of course – but as far as I can tell, like-for-like people in the U.K. somehow seem more resigned and cynical than their continental peers; the greater passivity in their choices of lifestyle betrays something.

I am not trying to suggest that there is only one type of, or path to, a good life – but perhaps the things that evidence the lack of one are rather clearer. While one might argue that people are happy if they think they are happy, it is not always true that the stressed or depressed realise it at the time. All species, when put under pressure, exhibit pathologies of which they may not be fully conscious. The willingness or resignation of many British to believe that life is hard and dull and that there is nothing much that can be done about it, may be one such pathology. The grudging, aggressive or antisocial behaviour one sometimes encounters in this country may be another, the need for constant novelty and escapism a third. Yet for all the politicians and gurus talk about empowering people, very little really seems to change…

Only those with heaps of cash seem able to escape the general precariousness of daily British life; for the rest the sedentary dependence on junk culture, shoddy goods and the dream of unearned fame is an expression of the failure of a society to come up with anything better to live for, rather than evidence of how well we are doing. And the very urge of the rich to buy their way out of wider national life in itself says a great deal – a phenomenon that seems much less marked on the continent.

Most concerning, it seems to apply as much to the educated as anyone else; the present educational direction seems intent on tying people ever more tightly into that world-view rather than liberating them from it. Again, perhaps the significant point is that (externally applied) education alone cannot a good life make. It’s what you do with what you’ve got that counts. The only other way to escape is to retire – and the expressions of utter relief from those I know who have done so recently itself says a lot about the experience of their working lives.

One encounters many people who are highly-qualified; some of them come from relatively privileged backgrounds, others much less so. But what so often strikes me is that there seems to be no correlation whatsoever between those individuals’ levels of education and their general outlook – except, perhaps, for the absence of severe hardship. For the dullness and pressure of even many professional-grade lives in the U.K. can only say even more about what it is like ‘lower down’.

Above all, there seems to be very little cognitive impact of their education: some of those people do have knowledgeable, enquiring minds – those who are ‘individuals’, who are great company, inspirational even , not because they all match but precisely because they each have something unique and engaging about them. But I encounter more of their type on the continent; in more cases here, the experience of becoming educated seems to have almost no real impact on lived lives at all – except (sometimes) the amount of money in pockets. Many seem still to have narrow perspectives and horizons, even on any perceived ‘purpose’ or context for their own lives. Where is the personal impact of all that education?

I am not entirely exempting myself from the matter either. I like to consider myself a thoughtful and reasonably knowledgeable person – but I attribute that largely to my upbringing and innate curiosity, and cannot say with certainty that my schooling had any more than a reinforcing effect. In that sense, I am no different from those others I may appear to be criticising. But I’m not really seeking to criticise people for the lives they choose to lead, so much as suggesting we may be wrong to believe that the key determinant of the quality of those lives is formal education.

But if this is so, one wonders why we are so mistaken – and how it turned out so differently elsewhere. What is lacking in the culture of this country that results in such a hang-dog approach to life? Maybe we are hoping that external ‘training’ can make up for the lack of something much more inherent and personal?

In many ways, ‘ordinary people’ are the same everywhere; they largely have similar concerns and problems. Except that some of them are fortunate not only to live in beautiful surroundings – but also in well-made buildings, in settlements where people clearly take a pride in their communities and in their relations with others, where civic institutions are strong and there is at least something of a social safety-net. There remains an unassuming sense of the good life, that life is worth living, an opportunity to be seized, that can be seized. It was expressed by the sense of general conviviality present in that restaurant the other evening, by the way each new arrival was generally greeted and each departure bidden goodnight – visitors and locals alike.

But those things did not happen by accident: they are the product either of people deciding those things are important and behaving accordingly – or of making it clear that they will not settle for less.

In the U.K., it seems that no amount of educational progress ever delivers to people anything more than a sense of the inescapability of the rat-race, of the need to gain at others’ expense, of the need to calibrate life in a way that still rarely delivers any tangible benefits. It’s about quantity, not quality. It does not deliver us better homes or roads, it does not improve our indifferent towns or environmental record.  It does not improve the quality of our national discourse or widen the availability of our culture. And if the continent is not entirely Paradise, then the grim bits of this country, and the lives lived there, seem to out-do much of what at least the west of the continent can offer.

‘Opportunity’ seems to be conceived as little more than the ability to work harder and spend more. It certainly seems to do little to enlighten people’s thinking about the things that transform the treadmill into a life well-lived. I know that is not the entirety of life in the U.K. either – but the prevalent mood here often seems to be a sense of weary resignation.

As I said at the start, perhaps education delivers the opportunity for divergent thinking – including precisely the ability to disagree with arguments like mine above – but I still do not understand why so many people here seem never to take their eyes off the ground and look to the stars, even when highly educated. The good life is not a matter of extravagant special occasions or the escapism of behaving badly – It is not a matter of shiny-eyed Panglossian over-optimism, so much as attending to the quality of ordinary everyday life. Our education system seems unable to help people to appreciate that – indeed it seems to be sending them in the opposite direction. But maybe realising such things is not a matter of formal education anyway.

In which case, one is left wondering what on earth all the pressure is actually for.


For what? (part one)


I’ve heard it said that if you want to understand why education is so important for a country, then just look at one that has none. It’s a point that is hard to argue with – and yet the connection between the life-experiences of people in various parts of the world and their educational experiences is anything but direct.

Empowering people to make more considered decisions about everything from their birth rates to their economic activities or their use of leisure time seems such an obvious thing to do, and it is clear that in aggregate terms there is an effect – even though what we teach rarely relates directly to such trends. Yet education also implies empowering people to make increasingly divergent decisions about their lives, rather than following patterns stipulated by others. There is a pretty significant contradiction here.

What’s more, when one looks at widely-educated nations, the connection between education and life-choices seems to diminish. Putting my curmudgeonly hat on for a moment, the harder I look at life in Britain, the less certain I am about what it is that the increasingly-urgent imperative for more and more education is actually meant to be bringing. When it comes to the norms of British life today, I find it hard to see where education’s effect actually lies.

This comes into sharper relief every time I travel to our near-neighbours on the continent. To be blunt, ‘Here’ I see many supposedly-educated people for whom that experience seems to inform their lives almost not at all; ‘There’ I see by comparison an attractive way of life for which formal education can presumably only be a partial cause. And I know those countries well enough for it not all to be just rose-tinted spectacles.  If the point of education even in developed countries is supposedly to improve the quality of people’s lives, are we looking for the wrong thing in the first place? And if it is not that, once the basics of life have been addressed, then what?

Like most (all?) teachers, I choose to believe in the transformative effect of education – in its ability to change lives substantively for the better – even if I also see it as the only alternative to remaining in savagery. If this is not the case, then just why is so much effort invested in improving ‘opportunity’ for those who supposedly do not already have it? But what does that opportunity consist of? Are we deluded to think that a more educated mind – let alone more bits of paper with grades on – really can make much real difference to people’s time on this planet?

I rather fear that it actually means little more than the ability to work harder or spend more, thereby enriching our masters further. I suppose it may also mean the ability to support one’s dependents better, thereby being less of a burden on the State – thus enriching our masters further. But do such things really equate to ‘more opportunity’ – let alone the best that education can offer? The societal effect of education is actually cross-generational, but in which case, is the story we peddle that learning generally transforms individual lives anything more than a white lie? True, people will sacrifice much for their children – but there comes a point when perpetual deference to the future becomes pointless. In a secular world, the best solution has to be for each equally-valuable life to be lived as well as possible in its own right.

I certainly don’t equate being bound ever more irrevocably into the economic treadmill with a better quality of life. It seems to me, too, that the focus simply on the grades people achieve – which ties them inescapably into an economised view of education-as-currency, rather than what actually happens in their heads during the educative process – is a corruption of the basic aspiration of that activity.

My half-term holiday involved travel by train to Strasbourg, and thence to our friends in Switzerland and their second home in the Black Forest. I took the heading photograph in a restaurant in a remote village 3000 feet up in said Forest . We had just finished stomping up a gorge by a waterfall, followed by an hour’s soak in the local spa-pool: an enlightened amenity for a backwoods – but not neglected – community. We ended with a delicious meal in this homely, family-run restaurant. But what has this to do with education – for all that our party consisted of people with Master’s and Doctorate qualifications? I suppose one might argue that education alters the value one attaches to such experiences, but that seems far from universal – I can think of many who would be bored by the prospect – and I doubt holding a PhD is a prerequisite for appreciating it either.

Question: does education really change the values one has in life?

So what is all the education really for? Germany and Switzerland excel at the ‘protestant work ethic’ – and no doubt running a successful restaurant or spa is indeed hard work when measured in time and physical effort – but where does education really come into it, beyond an ability to add takings up or read the regulations? It is unlikely to generate the understanding that even in business, authenticity and joie-de-vivre are important assets. Likewise, accumulating the money to acquire second homes and pay for meals requires work – but that is hardly sufficient to sum up the beneficial effects.

It seems to me that the things that I find so attractive about those countries’ quality of life have less to do with education than their transmitted culture. They may value hard work and they certainly have no shame about material wealth – but those are not the things that alone bring their high quality of life. If anything, the opposite is true: it is the remaining awareness that the good life is about more than material factors that is important. Contrast this with a conversation overheard amongst educated Britons recently, to the effect that customer-loyalty is pointless any more since all companies overcharge and one should ruthlessly shop around in order to beat the price down. It seems a bleak, dehumanised view even of commerce – and one for which a little independent thought might prompt a re-evaluation.

During our trip, we encountered unfailingly friendly, courteous people in shops, restaurants and the street – as we always do. I’m not so naïve as to believe this is the whole truth – but it is nonetheless a regularly repeating experience. One assumes they do not all hold doctorates, nor put the pleasantness on just for foreigners – but the impression is of a positive outlook on life that if nothing else still has time for the basic civilities.

As always, we found a comfortable, solid stability that appears to provide a high quality of lived experience, no matter how educated people might (not) be. I’m not suggesting that there is no hardship or conflict in those places – I have seen enough of the less attractive side of the continent to know better than overlook it.  But the overall sense is of a better, more satisfied life-balance than is widely achieved in the U.K. where life seems perpetually precarious – as the various ‘social pathologies’, let alone more overt recent expressions of dissatisfaction might suggest.

People ‘over there’ do have pressured lives – but they still seem to retain a greater sense of personal agency, and an awareness that the good life has to come from within – precisely the things that one might expect good education to inform. And they do it seemingly without recourse to either the bleak social Darwinism of the British Right or the indulgent dependency-culture of the Left. One might add a sense that civic structures in those countries are more enabling and less punitive and miserly in their outlook than those we have here.

By contrast, my impression of this country is that no matter how hard one works, Quality of Life is an elusive concept. I have sent countless young people out from my school whose expectation seems to be that life is a rat-race in which the sole purpose is to earn as much cash as possible, unaware of the fact that doing so may cause impoverishment in many other ways. Plenty see education as little more than a necessary evil to accomplish this.

For all the eventual high salaries of South-East England, this seems to me to be a recipe for a dull, unsatisfying life, the proof of which is the ceaseless, fruitless scrabble for privileged economic status in the town where the school is located. Yet that town itself is a dull, lifeless place; its wealth does not seem to bring it a greater quality of life. Furthermore, that life is seen as competitive rather than collaborative, about extrinsic success rather than intrinsic satisfaction – is, I think, a deeply important point. Put our pupils (as I often have) alongside their Swiss or German counterparts and ask them about their respective lives and the contrast screams loud…

(To be continued)


Clowning around

For much of my career, the emphasis on children’s behaviour has been that of empowerment. In the past, so the fiction went, children were repressed and helpless, and a key part of their education should be giving them the confidence to make their own decisions. If one disregards the progressive back-story to this, I see nothing wrong with encouraging children to make confident decisions, and the fear of getting things ‘wrong’ can still be a powerful influence at times.

Over time, this outlook has had some success, though there are other factors at work which have appeared to empower people more generally in their own lives. I think there is nothing whatsoever to object to in the principle – but being empowered also implies having the necessary ability to assume responsibility for both the decision-making before and the effects after a decision is taken. Some of that capability is a function of maturity – which is something children by definition do not have.

This is where the problems begin: many trends in modern societies have encouraged power without responsibility. I am pretty certain that the impact of modern advertising has given people a sense of entitlement, and has not necessarily emphasised the responsibilities that people might have to use their consumption responsibly. In the U.K., successive governments have emphasised the importance of consumer choice, probably reinforcing the effect.

At the same time, the growth of mass culture and mass consumption has diminished the sense of individuality that people have; I can find no other explanation for why so many people seem entirely content to have tastes and preferences that are clones of each other. And with a diminished sense of individuality perhaps comes a similar sense of agency, or responsibility for one’s actions. Ironically, the effect of so-called empowerment may be largely contrary.

The net effect of this has been both to enhance children’s ‘knowingness’ about the world – their awareness of issues, and opportunities for behaviours that they arguably should not access until adulthood – and ironically, to infantilise adults who can avail themselves of an every-growing array of sophisticated ‘toys’ with which to divert their attention from the matters of responsibility that adulthood arguably brings.

The notion of being a small cog in a large machine has implications.

I don’t remember there ever being a mass-hysteria event when I was at school – but then, there were only 850 pupils in that school, who were largely known to all the staff. Contrast that with the nearly 1800 where I work, and where I suspect any one teacher only knows – or perhaps even recognises – a fraction of the total.

In a school of this size, the individual can easily disappear. Already this term, we have had two instances of what can only be described as the herd mentality. Our pupils are normally largely co-operative, but when the crowd dynamic takes over, their behaviour can change, the usual constraints appear to loosen – and there are enough of them to make the situation challenging to handle.

The second of these events concerned something that which, being a false alarm constituted no threat whatsoever – but that was not known at the time. What ensued was a large number of children massing directly towards something that they must have known from media coverage, might have presented a threat. There were a considerable number of staff on duty at the time, but it was an effort to restore complete order and send pupils onward to their lessons. I emphasise that my school is well staffed and supervision procedures are followed closely; there was no risk to the children at any time – except perhaps from the general dynamics of a large crowd of people.

For all we expend considerable time and energy educating children to be responsible individuals, when something like this takes over, normal rules seem to be suspended. The concerning thing is that no amount of teacher input seems to make much difference. I had a somewhat difficult class in the hour following the incident described above, and it took much effort to calm them before we could resume the lesson. I linked their classroom behaviour with what had happened outside under the theme of trust and ‘doing the right thing’. The blank faces suggested I might as well have been talking to the wall. What’s more, while some colleagues correctly pointed out that they are ‘only children’, I don’t see that this should absolve them from the expectation of any sense of responsibility whatsoever. And if that is indeed an acceptable justifier, then it should perhaps instead modify the degree of accountability in which the adults responsible for them are held.

It is an unfortunate by-product of modern society that it seems fewer and fewer people have much sense of responsibility or appropriateness of behaviour. It is easy to blame it on home backgrounds, but whether that is the whole truth is doubtful; most of our children come from reasonably attentive homes. Something is empowering these children to the extent that they have such self-confidence that they feel able to ignore even adults in positions of authority when it suits them – and no amount of teacher-power seems to make much of a dent in it.

It may be old-fashioned, or even repressive, but we should remember that children are not mature adults who are (hopefully) able to make considered decisions. They have immature minds and increasingly cannot, it seems, be trusted to do the right thing. This is what the removal of the notion of obedience has done.

Perhaps what is needed is a bit more old-fashioned restraint and respect for authority: particularly when others are potentially held responsible for the consequences, having the confidence to make their own decisions has gone too far.


Learning hard and easy

The hyper-active blogger Greg Ashman wrote an interesting post a few days ago, and this is my response.

He was contemplating why it can be so hard to get children to learn in classrooms, when it is something they seemingly do effortlessly the rest of the time.

In particular, he discussed the ease with which spoken language develops compared with written language, and I think he is broadly correct that there is an evolutionary imperative behind the former that the latter lacks.

However, I suggest that learning is not as elusive in the classroom as he implies; the problem arises when we try to control and direct what is indeed an innate but serendipitous process.

People’s brains continually acquire new information, some of which is retained for varying lengths of time in the process we have come to call ‘learning’. Young humans learn quicker than older ones for all sorts of evolutionary reasons, but if we revert to the primitive condition for a moment, this process is by definition haphazard. In a savage environment, what is beneficial to ‘learn’ and what is not is unlikely to be clear, as indeed is the prospects of being able to exert very much influence over which situations arise from which learning can occur. Furthermore, it is unlikely that primitive humans had the luxury of reflective meta-thinking over what they were learning.

If, as a number of workers suggest, it is correct that the basic workings of human brains have evolved relatively little in the interim, then it immediately creates a problem when we try to channel the learning process. The human brain is not particularly inclined to be directed in this way, and that is without allowing for the effects of immaturity. Even in later life, the loss of autonomy involved in being micro-managed is a major demotivator for people, and one effect of this is a decreased propensity to take in what one is being ‘fed’.

So we find ourselves in a classroom situation where control of the learning process is at best partial. Undoubtedly, the simple act of focusing on an issue is enough to create some learning (always assuming that that focus can be achieved) – but it is no guarantee that long-term retention of the intended material will result, nor that other things will not be remembered instead. Even today, some of the things I remember about my own schooling can best be described as random.

However, I think Ashman is correct to refute what might appear to be the logical conclusion – namely that learning should attempt to emulate the natural process. Placing people in controlled circumstances in classrooms is not natural to begin with – and I doubt that many would advocate just setting children loose in the world to see what they learn. (That said, I fear that many children’s opportunities to explore the world are now severely, harmfully curtailed – but not by teachers).

I think we also have to accept that education in the formal sense is not the same as learning. There is a clear agenda, even if we disagree over its content. And we should not lose sight of the fact that schooling is a process of socialisation, one might even say civilisation, and this too is a human construct. This of course involves the cognitive development of the individual, but also the transmission of societal and cultural information that we want or need the next generation to inherit.

My recent reading of Walter Mischel (see previous post) also casts useful light here. Perhaps the single most important aspect of formal education is the conscious effort to move people to a higher state of cognitive functioning. This is equally important for individual wellbeing and social functioning. I think Mischel is absolutely correct to claim that the critical point here is the ability of humans to defer their instant, instinctive gratifications in favour of more considered longer term objectives. This is effectively what the (supposedly) simple act of Concentration is.

This is as true for the process of empathising with others, of anticipating one’s later life, of not allowing one’s entirely valid, essential emotional life to head in destructive directions – as it is for reaching a considered academic position in a formal subject.

This process of delaying gratification is difficult, demanding work, especially for immature minds. The chances of most of them doing it unaided are slim; allowing people the opportunity to seek immediate gratifications through concentrating on the short term in the classroom can, it seems to me, only lead to most of them repeatedly avoiding facing up to the difficult task.

One might also interpret the whole ‘fun/contingent rewards’ worldview as an attempt to shorten the delay between effort and pay-back. But this can only ever make the required deferment less demanding, thus compromising the chances of the individual eventually developing that capability. This is particularly important for those children who are unlikely to have gained the ability elsewhere, of which the majority are likely to be from less structured backgrounds.

So I think the recent re-emphasis on a demanding education is correct. It may also help if we try to explain these concepts to children, rather than leaving them un-discussed as was the case with my generation – or if we try to kid them that it isn’t happening. Early uses of my Marshmallow Prezi this week did generate interest, and perhaps even a short-term practical pay-back. But then, it is only the beginning of the beginning for this academic year.

I think there is a more immediate lesson here for educators, though.

That is to accept the inherent uncertainty of the process. In particular, we would do well to be rid of the use of the word ‘Learning’ in the sense of a knowable, predictable, quantifiable entitlement. This would in turn divest us of many of the false promises that commodified education makes. And it would also rid us of the huge burden placed upon all who do their best to educate children day in day out, by the unrealistic expectation that it is a simple matter of delivering a pre-packed product, of which the failure to do so can only be down to the ineffectiveness of the provider.